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25.02.2020 | Halya Coynash
Freedom of expression

Journalists face criminal charges for probing Ukraine police head’s unexplained assets

Photo on the Bihus.info site which Koval has demanded should be removed o.png
   

Media and human rights groups have condemned measures brought by the police against Bihus.info journalists which they view as persecution for their journalist work.  Criminal proceedings were initiated on 13 February, after the journalists took photographs of what they believe to be an undeclared vehicle belonging to the First Deputy Head of the National Police, Yevhen Koval. The journalists’ activities were deemed to fall under Article 343 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code (intrusion in the activities of law enforcement bodies and Article 182 (violation of privacy).

Bihus.Info reported the criminal charges on 20 February, asserting that they had been launched over an investigation into assets of the police management.  They explained that the journalists had noticed and were clearly recording Koval being collected by a driver in an expensive land-rover.  They assert that they were standing in a public place and merely carrying out their journalist work, but that criminal proceedings were initiated that same day.

Koval, they say, had driven away, however returned minutes later, driving up to the journalist, who has since been identified as Maria Zemlianska.  Although she identified herself, showed her journalist ID and explained that she was carrying out work for the publication, the policeman opened her car, took the video recorder from the car and demanded to see the driver’s documents. Koval himself, in breach of the law, did not identify himself, although he claimed that his actions were because he was a police officer and worried for his life.  Bihus.info is convinced that Koval knew very well that he was talking to journalists from the program “Our money with Denis Bihus”.

Zemlianska was summoned for questioning three days later, with the interrogation lasting over three hours. Although she was supposedly questioned as a witness, some of the questions did not pertain to the events on 13 February, such as how topics are chosen, sources of information, etc.  The chief editor and administrator of the program were also summoned for questioning.

Koval claims that the Toyota Land Cruiser 200 , which is not listed on his official declaration is a work car.  The vehicle is worth 1.5 million UAH.   In reporting the above events, Bihus.info took the opportunity to ask the police and Interior Ministry to confirm or deny that this undoubtedly expensive vehicle is police property. They also assert that Koval’s father has 23 land plots registered in his name, with four buildings and over eight hectares of land in a resort area in Zakarpattia and further land in a prestigious residential area near Kyiv.  There is also a fair amount of land and a large (120 square metres) flat registered in his mother’s name.  In all, Bihus calculates, Koval’s parents are in possession of over one million dollars’ worth of assets, with Bihus adding that it has been unable to confirm that they have the relevant income for this amount of property.

Bihus reported on 24 February that the First Deputy Head of Police has demanded that they remove his photographs from their site, as well as information about the questions the journalists have regarding his parents’ assets. The letter which Bihus received asserts that the above information causes him “significant psychological damage” and is defamatory.    The letter also denies that Koval opened the journalists’ car, took out the video recorder and demanded to see the driver’s documents.  Bihus points out that this denial is despite the journalists’ video of the incident.  Koval’s letter states that all of this “denigrates his honour and dignity; hurts his business reputation; prompts negative judgements about him from the public and discredits him as an officer of a law enforcement body”.

Koval does not appear to be denying the initiating of criminal proceedings and questioning of the journalists, and these are of no less concern.  There was nothing illegal about the journalists’ activities, including their interest in assets if the latter are obviously disproportionate to a public official’s income since this can be an indicator of corruption.   

In their statement, the Institute for Mass Information, the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union and around 16 other human rights organizations call Koval’s actions “direct pressure on journalists” and call on the police to stop all such interference in journalists’ work.  They ask the State Bureau of Investigations and the Office of the Prosecutor General to investigate whether the activities of police investigators were within the law.

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